Gainesville turned upside down by Koran-burning threat, even after cancellation

People gather near the Pentagon and the site of the World Trade Center in New York to remember the victims of the terror attacks nine years ago.
By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 12, 2010; 9:40 PM

GAINESVILLE, FLA. - On Saturday evening neither the pastor nor his bonfire appeared. But the rest of Gainesville's Sept. 11 spectacle carried on without him.

Terry Jones, the leader of the tiny Dove World Outreach Center in this Florida college town, had seized national attention by promising to burn Korans--and then by promising not to. By Saturday, he wasn't even in town: he'd gone to New York, appearing on NBC's Today Show that morning.

So, on that evening, what was left was a darkened and apparently empty church, with a parking lot filled with dozens of police officers and numerous members of the media.

Across the street, behind a barricade, were about 200 people who had come to protest Jones' fiery demonstration--and now had the media spotlight to themselves. They carried signs urging religious tolerance: "Injustice to one is injustice to all," "Burn fat, not Korans."

"Not our city! Not our state!" the group chanted. The demonstation was organized by a group at the nearby University of Florida, Students for a Democratic Society. "No burning! No hate!"

Saturday was a confusing day in Gainsville, as residents sorted out what the brouhaha meant to them and their city.

Some worried that the city's children might not forget the experience of rumored local bomb threats and violence. Some, particularly in the neighborhood around the church, wondered whether it could impact property values or Gainesville's reputation - or self-image as one of the region's most diverse communities.

Others said that although they were disgusted by Jones's Koran-burning idea, there was something disturbing in seeing the event called off amid hysteria, as if the canceling chipped away a tiny bit at the country's tolerance and freedom. And if so, did Jones have a point - made via the hysteria - about Islam influencing American culture, including in this sunny, progressive college town?

"I go back and forth," said Chris Leggett, 25, a hair stylist who grew up in Gainesville and was between customers at Hair Hunters, a mini-mall salon about a mile from the Dove church.

Although he said he thinks Jones is "an idiot" for the Koran-burning plan, Leggett found himself in recent days wondering what the big deal was about an isolated incident that the whole community had rejected? A girl he knew burned the U.S. flag right after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and it was a big controversy in Gainesville for a couple days, but it blew over.

"What's the big deal? He might have a point," Leggett said. "We allow people to do whatever they want, why can't he? People do whatever they want to us, burn flags, why can't [Jones] strike back? Why can't we just let him do his thing in the corner?"

Another stylist, 59-year-old Mike Bennett, said he was disturbed that Dove was being presented as a face of Gainesville Christianity. Both men were annoyed to hear chat on talk radio that "makes Gainesville look like a bunch of rednecks," Bennett said.

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